September 27, 2022
With the end of the season fast approaching, my good friend JD Gossage and I decided to do a short weekend on a public field not far from our house. Earlier in the year we had packed up and hunted near the treeline, but with this short weekend we intended to stay lower in the heavy wood. It was late September, and our plan was simple: get a bull in heat to answer our calls and kill it.
We started early, diligently setting up every time we stopped to call, nocking an arrow, then silently waiting several minutes before moving on. We covered several miles that morning, and as the day progressed, the monotony began to weigh on us.
That afternoon, our discipline began to decline. Without consciously thinking about it, we gradually stopped being so selective about where we stopped to call. The time we spent waiting after each sequence of calls became shorter and shorter, until we finally did nothing more than give a high-pitched cry and a few cow calls – momentarily listening to a response, then moving on.
By evening we were tired, far from camp and frustrated by the lack of response. I led the way with JD in tow; we were both just covering ground and not paying much attention. I stopped, put my growl tube to my lips, let out a scream, then followed up with some cow calls.
Without stopping for more than a few seconds, I looked at the ground just in front of my boots and started to plod, then something exploded in front of me. Startled by the sound, JD and I looked up to see a handsome bull swapping ends just over 20 yards away, and without even an arrow on a string, we saw butts and elbows disappear through the wood .
The curse that followed was both poetic and pathetic. The least these bulls could have done was give us a little courtesy bugle to let us know they were coming. Is it too much to ask? Unfortunately, this is often the case.
I can’t remember how many times this exact scenario burned me, but that’s more times than I’d like to admit. In recent years, I have become more disciplined. For some, calling elk is not their preferred method of hunting. I have known very successful elk hunters who prefer to spot and stalk the same way they hunt velvet muleys. To me, however, the call aspect is what makes elk the most exciting animal on the planet to hunt with a bow. Don’t get me wrong, if I get the chance to sneak up on a big bull, I will. But that’s definitely not my favorite way to hunt them.
So how does a nut calling elk manage when the bulls don’t talk? Here are some of the methods that I have found most useful.
Rule number one
My first rule is to always assume that your calls are going to work. While this may seem easy and obvious, I assure you it’s not, especially when you’ve been calling all week with no answer. Have confidence and stay optimistic, so you’ll be ready to capitalize when the opportunity finally presents itself.
Select your setups with a purpose
Don’t get caught in the trap of just stopping where you are and answering a call. It’s an easy habit to pick up. Choose your call points purposefully.
The first question to ask is, what type of shooting lanes do I have? Choose positions that give you some visibility on an incoming bull. Then ask yourself how far will a bull be able to hear me? Choose places that are not framed by the terrain. It’s amazing how limited a hill between you and a bull can be.
Wait after each call sequence
It’s the one that burned me the most throughout my career. It’s very easy to get lazy as a hunt continues and stop giving bulls time to show up after your call. Early season bulls who are just beginning to think about rounding up cows and late season bulls who have been called can be very hesitant to respond.
Often their reaction upon hearing a call will be to sneak away. Just because a bull hasn’t responded doesn’t mean he won’t come to investigate, so follow my first rule and assume he’s on his way by giving him time to get there. Break this rule too often, and it’s only a matter of time before you experience exactly what JD and I did earlier in this article.
Use multiple calls
Some successful elk hunters have a favorite call. Typically, this is a shout that they swear will motivate a bull to respond.
While squeals are generally good choices for generating responses, I’ve seen bulls that I swear have a favorite sound that triggers them, and nothing else seems to work. Sometimes that sound ends up being cow cries coming from a diaphragm; sometimes a bite-and-swipe style call; sometimes a chuckle, or even a hiss through a growl tube.
One year I was guiding a client who had a biting old call around his neck. After several rounds of beautiful sounding calls with my diaphragm, we got no response.
The client then asked me if I would mind if he tried. When he did, it sounded like a cat had its tail slammed into a door. But seconds later, a bull hammered him.
I tried my distinguished call again without success, but each time my client “slammed the cat’s tail in the door” the bull would start firing. For some reason, the bull only responded to that sound. I don’t know why, but I’ve found it beneficial to have a variety of calls to experiment with.
Learn to talk in the bedroom
A few years ago, a Colorado guide named Don Latham showed me the value of being able to call softly. While soft cow calls aren’t usually a problem, learning how to do soft bull vocalizations was much more difficult.
At first, I didn’t understand the value of this skill, but Don was a master of it. Even shy bulls rarely stop calling all together. They still need to communicate with their cows, so they often drop their call dramatically, making soft bugles that cows in the immediate vicinity can hear but you would never hear from several hundred yards away.
What Don taught me is that shy bulls may not respond if you pound them from a distance, but if you sneak into their room and use soft bull vocalizations, they will often come to you. This is an excellent midday tactic. Remember that you have to get into their comfort zone and the bugle gently takes practice. Mastering this skill, however, will produce results.
Dealing with timid bulls can be a challenge. It would be nice if they were just courteous and gave us a bugle to let us know they were there, but sometimes male elk are just plain rude. Keep these tactics in mind the next time you see a sign of fresh elk but get no response. Pay special attention to rule number one. If every time you call you really think it’s going to work, you’ll avoid many of the most common mistakes.